Doctor Who Unbound: Deadline

By Matthew Kresal



There's a line said by Anthony Ainley's Master in the 1983 anniversary story The Five Doctors that's become something of a favorite in Doctor Who fandom: "The cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about." Yet, as dramatized in 2013's An Adventure in Space and Time and written about in countless books, it nearly became the case in the series earliest days as internal BBC politics and production issues almost doomed the infant series. Imagining a world where Doctor Who had never made it to the screen might seem like an odd choice for an anniversary year, but in 2003, Big Finish and writer Robert Shearman tackled the idea in the Doctor Who Unbound release Deadline. As discussed in earlier pieces of this series, 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 familiar tropes from new angles. Like its immediate predecessor in the range, Deadline began its life as another project altogether. In this case, as a potential radio play for BBC Radio 4, pitched by Shearman and fellow Big Finish and BBC radio writer Nev Fountain as Shearman explained to author Benjamin Cook for 2003's Doctor Who: The New Audio Adventures - The Inside Story. Their pitch, based on interest on the part of Radio 4 to commission "a drama project that was about Doctor Who, rather than being Doctor Who itself," focused on "a little boy watching the early days of Doctor Who at home in the Sixties - and using it as an escape from an unhappy home life. We built the idea that parents - called Ian and Barbara, naturally - were estranged from the boy's grandfather and that the kid would fantasise that his granddad was Doctor Who and ready to transport him to exciting adventures." Radio 4 ultimately chose to produce the Mark Gatiss-hosted documentary My Life as a Dalek instead, allowing Shearman to re-tool a number of the ideas for the fifth release in the Unbound series. Though the setting moved from the early sixties to the then-present day and the POV character changed from grandson to grandfather, much of Deadline lies in that original Radio 4 pitch. As that might attest to, Deadline is in many ways the most "unbound" tale of the entire Doctor Who Unbound run. Other Unbound stories still contained a recognizable piece of Doctor Who storytelling, not far removed from the parent TV series, no matter the changes to the larger Whovian universe and canon the writer employed. Not so with Deadline, despite Shearman having penned several well-regarded Big Finish stories for the company's original Doctor Who range (including Jubilee that would become the basis of the 2005 TV episode Dalek). Indeed, what it most resembles isn't those earlier Who audios but the darkly comic dramas he'd written for Radio 4. While that strand of dark humor is in the earlier audios, it's given free rein to run wild here. Shearman's script isn't a Doctor Who story, not in the traditional sense, anyway. Instead, Shearman pens a drama about a retired writer, perhaps the only person in the world who might remember Doctor Who as the series that never was. Martin Bannister is a man at the end of a failed career and, in so many ways, a failed life forty years on from when he could have penned the opening serial for the series. So long ago, in fact, that memories and exact details are but faded details in Bannister's mind. But it's a topic that his life in a nursing home keeps bringing to the surface between his nurse Barbara Wright, son Philip, and a journalist from the official Julia Bravo magazine interact with him, catching him in all of his moods along the way. It's a drama about Doctor Who and an alternate history tale of an unusual sort with only the vaguest of hints of the changed world beyond. (Such as the journalist's "science fiction on television?!" line, which makes one wonder if the success of the Quatermass serials in the 1950s didn't somehow inspire more genre productions.) Shearman's choice of Bannister as his protagonist also means it fits into the "peasants, not kings" approach championed by my fellow writer Alexander Wallace, offering a ground-level view of this world. Though that view isn't necessarily a pleasant one, to be sure. While Shearman mixes in plenty of elements from the early years of Doctor Who in Bannister's imaginings and writing, including adapted scenes from An Unearthly Child and The Masters of Luxor, they are the fantasy that frequently butts against grim reality. Namely, that Bannister hasn't been the writer, father, or husband he could or ought to have been. Nor has Bannister mellowed with age, as the borderline cruel scene between him and interviewer Sydney early on in the running time proves. Listening to that scene for the first time in 2008 felt like a gut punch, so much so that I turned it off for a few minutes after listening to Bannister berate his interviewer. Today, I recognize the scene not as a vindictive strike against fans but as commentary on a specific kind of over-obsessive part of fandom and those, like Bannister, unable to understand why other aspects of their career get overlooked in favor of something they may view as inconsequential. It's a scene about imperfect and unhappy people living in a world that is equally imperfect and unhappy, as is much of Deadline itself. And, ultimately, the clash between hard reality and escapist fantasy, especially for those whom the lines between them blur as they do for Bannister as it increasingly unfolds. Somewhere that Deadline, like much of Big Finish's output, benefited from was in its casting. Sir Derek Jacobi, now a regular with the company doing audios based on his later War Master character, slipped neatly into his first Big Finish role of Bannister, moving between his encounters with various others in the nursing home and imagining himself as the Doctor. Shearman's script and his performance choices (as well as the direction of Nicholas Briggs) imbues him with many of the same qualities as William Hartnell's First Doctor: the at times cross, even harsh, man capable of great warmth and giddy excitement when the moment calls for it. Many of which Jacobi's Bannister, like Hartnell's Doctor, switches between even inside individual scenes. It's Jacobi and a supporting cast that includes versatile performances from Jacqueline King (later to play the mother to Catherine Tate's Donna Noble in the revived TV series) and Genevieve Swallow that brings Shearman's tale to life with its world of imperfect characters. Being a darkly comic drama, Deadline won't be for all tastes. Of all the Unbound stories, it's perhaps the most daring for simply being a human drama and not a non-canonical exercise in Doctor Who storytelling. It's a drama that looks at the imperfect creators of stories and the danger of blurring the lines between fact and fantasy. It would have been the perfect endpoint for the Unbound range, but there was still another story to tell, for better or worse.

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Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press, and has also written a Sea Lion Press novel about Joe McCarthy.