By Matthew Kresal
The late Terrance Dicks, script editor of Doctor Who from 1969-74 and who perhaps wrote for more incarnations of the Doctor than anyone else, liked to say that, as a character, the Doctor was always the Doctor. The Doctor was, to quote Dicks and fellow Who writer Malcolm Hulke, "...often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly." No matter what face they might be wearing, or even in different timelines, the fundamentals never changed. What if, though, that wasn't how the Doctor operated? That question lies at the heart of Full Fathom Five, the third release in Big Finish's 2003 Doctor Who Unbound series.
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 the familiar with new perspectives.
While previous Unbound stories had dealt with the repercussions of changes to the show's canon (Auld Mortality with the Doctor staying on Gallifrey, Sympathy For the Devil the Doctor not being UNIT's scientific under the Brigadier), Full Fathom Five turned its attention toward the Doctor. In some ways, this was an ideal story for scriptwriter David Bishop to have written. Bishop had penned one of the best novels of the Virgin Who run, Who Killed Kennedy, whose entire premise was looking at the early UNIT era (and the present day (ish) set Who serials of the sixties and early seventies) from the perspective of a journalist. It was a work of alternate history to some extent, meshing together real-world events of the sixties and seventies with Doctor Who's TV serials of the time compellingly. More than that, it let Bishop show how the Doctor could be viewed as a sinister figure leaving collateral damage in his wake (including, controversially even during the wilderness era, killing off a former companion in its original edition). Indeed, as Bishop told Benjamin Cook in a 2003 interview for Doctor Who: The New Audio Adventures - The Inside Story, one of the earliest ideas for the audio would have seen it told entirely from the perspective of a guard. While the final story didn't, the themes of Bishop's previous work resonate in the audio.
How Bishop set about his exploration is intriguing in its own right, with the writer doing so within a deceptively traditional Doctor Who story format. Set around the underwater base of The Deep-Sea Energy Exploration (DEEP), the choice of setting seems calculated to invoke memories of bases and research stations from throughout what is today known as Classic Who, ranging from Fury From the Deep to The Sea Devils and Warriors of the Deep. Also, Full Fathom Five unfolds across two time periods, 27 years apart but connected by events that unfolded there in the past. It's a mode of storytelling that is familiar (if not cliched by this point) for viewers of Modern Who, but in 2003 it was still something of a novelty, and time has not weathered how effectively Bishop used it here. These choices, especially the classical setting, likewise creates a certain air of familiarity that lulls listeners into a false sense of security, one with which Bishop devastates when the right moment comes.
Also, by the time Bishop pulls his biggest punches, we've already met and think we've gotten to know our Doctor. David Collings fit the Unbound series bill of casting someone who might have been a Doctor if things had gone differently, having made memorable appearances in both The Robots of Death and Mawdryn Undead. Hearing him in Full Fathom Five, there's little doubt he'd have made a fine Doctor, with many of the early scenes seem to play him in a more traditional model. But, as Bishop pointed out to Cook, it's worth giving the story more than one listening to realize things aren't quite what they seem from the very first scene. As strong as the script is, it's Collings's ability to turn things on a dime as events from the past catch up with the present, and the true nature of both what happened at the DEEP then and the Doctor's role in them plays out, that sells the twists when they arrive. Not to mention packing a massive emotional punch.
It's that emotional punch, playing out in the last third of the story and especially in its final eight or nine minutes, that has divided opinions among listeners for nearly two decades now. It's easy to understand why that it is, given that Bishop takes that Dicks and Hulke quote at the top of this review and turns it on its head. In light of other wilderness era works, especially the Virgin New Adventures novels that pushed Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor ever farther into being a manipulative chess player, the idea of an "ends justify the means" Doctor seems a natural development. The Doctor of Full Fathom Five has been called evil in some circles, something that is perhaps simply an oversimplification. The aim of what he’s doing is certainly in keeping with the Doctor we know and love. But the Doctor here is something of an anti-hero, for what makes him different is the lengths to which he’s willing to go to accomplish his goals. Bishop, along with director Jason Haigh-Ellery in conjunction with sound designers/composers Andy Hardwick and Gareth Jenkins, presents in such brutal and stark terms that it's easy to understand the borderline offense some took to it. Or, given how that final scene plays out with the note Full Fathom Five concludes upon, for that matter. Whatever else might be said, this is not for the faint of heart.
With perhaps one notable exception, Full Fathom Five is the Unbound that most stands out as a product of its time. Within a short time of its release, the announcement of a new TV series made headlines and, not long after that, a new degree of oversight from the BBC regarding just what it was their licensees could put out under the Who banner. It's doubtful that anything like Full Fathom Five would receive a release today, yet eighteen years later, it stands out like a brutalist piece of architecture: minimalist in its approach, perhaps not the most pleasing thing to take in, but impressive in scope and audacity. It remains a daring piece of Doctor Who storytelling, one that creates an intriguing, if a brutal, alternative vision of its lead character, and not that is most certainly not for all tastes.