By Matthew Kresal
As I type these words at the tail end of summer 2021, Jodie Whittaker has played the Doctor in the BBC's Doctor Who since 2017 and will be leaving the role sometime next year. Perhaps predictably, her casting has proven to be somewhat controversial. While some fans rejoiced in the news and celebrated her tenure, others have been very vocal in their displeasure, with some decrying it as a stunt or done in the name of political correctness. Yet, Whittaker is far from the first actress to play the traveler in space and time. Indeed, one previous example came in November 2003 with the release of Exile, released as the intended final entry in the Doctor Who Unbound range.
As discussed in earlier pieces for 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.
Written and directed by Big Finish stalwart Nicholas Briggs, Exile combined two alternate premises in one script. Not only was the Doctor a woman, but became so after escaping the Time Lord tribunal at the end of the seminal 1969 serial The War Games, with Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor committing suicide to cause the change. Briggs cast actress Arabella Weir in the role of the alternative female Third Doctor, and things seemed set to turn out well.
Except that frustratingly, things went south very quickly.
The story's biggest problem was its approach. Namely, that Briggs chose to turn Exile into a full-out comedy with decidedly mixed results. From the opening scene, which parodies the trial scenes from The War Games, Briggs aimed to create something ala Steven Moffat's 1999 Red Nose Day piece The Curse Of The Fatal Death. Namely, something that would, at once, pay homage and parody the Second Doctor and Third Doctor eras (Briggs even played a version of the Second Doctor that chastises his female successor). That homage/parody aim is also evident from the fannish references on display, from the Doctor mistaking a man at a pub for the Master to the previous Doctors obsessions with Quarks from The Dominators and multi-Doctor banter reminiscent of The Three Doctors.
However, Exile comes across as anything but funny. Weir’s Doctor has little to do but get drunk with a couple of her co-workers (having taken on the identity of granddaughter Susan Foreman and working at Sainsbury’s) and imagining alien invasion plots, admonished by her previous self. Briggs script becomes little more than a series of drinking and committing inspired gags linked together by some Doctor Who references, something which wears thin after the open 15 minutes or so. When not going in for such things, there are the perhaps inevitable attempts at humor around the Doctor changing sex by suicide which, even upon listening to it for the first time in 2008, felt slightly dodgy and most certainly do to 2021 ears. It's perhaps no wonder then that Briggs, in a 2017 interview on the eve of Whittaker’s casting, while pointing out that Exile was written to be "a bit of a joke," expressed some regrets, saying, "It’s something I would never do now." It's something that likewise wastes the talents of Weir, making it hard to judge her Doctor given the way the script forces her to play the role.
Exile isn't entirely a write-off, however. Slightly better is a subplot in which two Time Lords (one played by Big Finish regular Toby Longworth and the other by a pre-Tenth Doctor David Tennant) having to try and track down the Doctor. Considerably more so than with Weir's Doctor, it's here that there are some legitimate moments of comedy with their mission made even more difficult for having got their destination wrong, with both their clothes and money being from the 1970s rather than the 2000s. Even so, the gags do tend to outstay their welcome, including one with the pair trying to figure out the local cuisine. Their scenes, including the trial scenes that essentially bookend the story, are Exile's best moments. Though, given what's around them, that's perhaps not saying much.
As with Full Fathom Five earlier in the Unbound range, Exile is a story that is very much of its time. With the series having returned to screens less than two years after its release or now that a female Doctor appearing on-screen, that such a story would ever get the go-ahead today based on its premise, let alone repeating the same series of drunken gags while trying to be a Doctor Who story at the same time. Even accounting for being a product of a particular moment in history, it remains an odd listen. Perhaps the fault lies in mashing together two very different ideas or presenting them as a comedy. The result is less about either the Doctor escaping Time Lord justice or trying to live an ordinary life and more what if Doctor Who was a sitcom instead of the series that it has been for nearly sixty years now. Whatever the case, it was to prove a disappointing end for an otherwise solid run of stories.
Except, being Doctor Who, this wasn't to be the final end at all...