Doctor Who Unbound: Sympathy For The Devil

By Matthew Kresal




Doctor Who's seventh season, aired in the opening months of 1970, would prove to be a decisive one for the history of the BBC's long-running science fiction series. Moving into color with a new leading man in the form of Jon Pertwee and set exclusively in something largely resembling the then-present day, the season saved the series from the brink of cancellation. Along the way, it firmly established the presence of both UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) and Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart at its head, leading the fight against the "odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth, or even beyond." But what if the Doctor hadn't arrived on Earth in time to be UNIT's scientific advisor, landing a couple of decades too late? That question lies at the heart of Sympathy For the Devil, the second entry in Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound series.


As discussed in the review of the series opener Auld Mortality, 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. Sympathy For the Devil, released in June 2003, carried on with that trend.


Written by Jonathan Clements, the audio initially started out exploring a very different vision of a world without the Doctor at the UNIT. As Clements told Benjamin Cook in a 2003 interview for Doctor Who: The New Audio Adventures - The Inside Story, the original brief saw UNIT fighting for survival in a world overrun by the Silurians (the reptilian first intelligent inhabitants of Earth, introduced in the second story of 1970). But rights issues, and a chance to include a well-known actor and fan of the series as the iconic Time Lord villain the Master, led to a change of plans. As Clements explained:


“So I went back to the beginning of the Pertwee era, and tried to work out what would have happened if the Doctor had not been there. A lot of the stories get thrown out straight away, because the Master is only doing stuff to wind the Doctor up. A load more would have simply been resolved by UNIT, but with more draconian measures. I drew up a timeline of the way things might have happened, and it fast became clear that the critical moment, where everything would have deviated, was Mind of Evil.


The result saw a very significant change in when and where Sympathy would take place. Opening in 1997 Hong Kong on the eve of its handover by Britain back to China, an alternate Third Doctor (David Warner) arrives years past his intended date in a world far closer to our own than the typical Doctor Who universe. Discovering he has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, the Doctor soon runs into a retired and disgraced Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney reprising his TV role), who is running a pub after years of UNIT failures. As the two catch up, an invisible Chinese stealth jet crashes into a nearby hillside, drawing in UNIT, currently commanded by Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood (David Tennant, two years before becoming the Doctor on TV). As UNIT attempts to recover the plane and its passenger, the Doctor soon realizes he is facing an old enemy with a plan of his own.


Across the 74 minutes running time of the story, Clements creates an intriguing alternate world. Those already fans of the series will pick up on the list of UNIT failures under the Brigadier, ranging from the Autoninvasions dealt with by plastic purges or the "Probe 7 fiasco" that led to a series of mile-wide craters scattered across the American landscape. Or how UNIT guarding peace conferences inevitably someone always ended up dead, and the threat of invasion by reptile people that led to a one-way trip back in time with nukes that turned "half of London into a lake." That's without mentioning how Clements essentially reimagines The Mind of Evil's plot points in a very different context. Many of these callbacks are passing, so much that I have to confess my younger self still getting into Classic Who in 2008 didn't always pick up on, but how characters speak of them gives weight and meaning to them.


There are real-world events mentioned, many laid out in a sequence where the Master berates the Doctor for his absence. A scene where the Master asks about My Lai, East Timor, Rwanda, and Cambodia (the latter putting a Who-twist on Pol Pot's execution of doctors). Yet Clements also creates a world where the Brigadier can casually mention "the Vietnam Wars," China is openly conducting atmospheric nuclear testing, or the air around Hong Kong handover is far tenser than it was in reality. It's an alternate history not just for Doctor Who but our own, one that is entirely believable in context but masterfully created in sparse, choice references rather than overcooked worldbuilding, and all the more effective for it.


The production also benefits from how well brought to life it is, as well. Take Warner, a one-time candidate for the Fourth Doctor before Tom Baker made the role his own, as this alternative Third Doctor, for example. There is more than a hint of Jon Pertwee's authoritativeness to him, but also calmer in dealing with authority figures than Pertwee's Doctor ever was. There's an air of dignity and compassion to Warner's Doctor as well, born out of a growing sense as the plot unfolds of his man becoming aware of just how much time he's lost and its effect on humanity. Like Pertwee or Tom Baker, there's also a sense of him arriving fully formed and aflame, something that fans and ultimately Big Finish would note of one day.


Like with Auld Mortality, there are also new takes on characters from this Doctor's TV era. First up is the Brigadier, and given this audio came at a time in Doctor Who fandom where it was easy to write off Courtney as an actor and the Brigadier as a character, something that Sympathy rectifies in a hurry. Courtney plays the Brigadier here as a man let down by the establishment, who feels like he has failed in life following his years at UNIT, one who almost needs the Doctor to bring him back to life. It's an intriguing take on the character, one bolstered both by Courtney's performance and the chemistry he has with Warner from their first scene together. The other character, played with considerable charm and menace by Mark Gatiss (credited on the CD release and Big Finish site as "Sam Kisgart" in a fan reference to 1980s Radio Times listings), is the Master. It's a role that's ideally suited for Gatiss, whose performance brings to mind a more malevolent version of Sherlock's Mycroft that he would begin playing at the opposite end of the noughties. And, like Warner's Doctor, a role where Gatiss brings forth aspects of successive TV incarnations of the character while also making the part his own. Add on a supporting cast that includes Tennant's Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, a fantastic foil for the Brigadier who insists on calling "Lethbridge" and a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, and it's an early example of Big Finish's penchant for solid casting choices.


The combination of script, performances, and production values all come together to make Sympathy For the Devil stand tall as a work of both Doctor Who and alternate history. It tantalizes listeners both old and new to the series with its references, blending them in with real-world events and extensions to create a compelling alternative world for its plot to play out. It's an audio drama that not only offers a masterclass for alternate history writers but also, despite its Unbound status, a gateway into Big Finish's output.


And at £2.99 or $2.99 on download, it's a bargain, too.

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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.