‘Oh no she isn’t!’ cries Tony.
The Big Finish Unbound series exists precisely to explore non-canonical ideas – what if the Doctor and Susan had never left Gallifrey? What if the Valeyard had won at the end of The Trial of a Time Lord?
One of the most experimental of the Unbound series, Exile plays Doctor Who for straight-up pantomime laughs, posing the question of what would happen if the Doctor escaped before sentencing at the end of The War Games, and never got exiled to Earth looking like Jon Pertwee.
Before there was a female Master, before we’d seen male-to-female regeneration on-screen, it also toyed with the much bigger sub-heading, What if the Doctor became a woman?
In a staggering example of prescience, all the way back in 2003, it was Arabella Weir who got to be the first full-adventure female Doctor (Joanna Lumley only appearing in the final moments of Curse of the Fatal Death four years earlier), bringing along her flatmate and fellow actor to play one of the Time Lords who did the sentencing and who subsequently chased her down. Some young skinny chap, name of Tennant…
Weir’s Unbound Doctor works in Sainsbury’s, on Earth, and gets drunk pretty much every night with her pals, Cherrie (Hannah Smith) and Cheese (Jeremy James). She puts her sonic screwdriver to work getting pound coins out of trolleys and for the most part spends her time trying, with appallingly little success, to blend in.
Meanwhile, Time Lords Toby Longworth and David Tennant are despatched to Earth to hunt her down and bring her back to bally well stand trial.
There are very few moments of any seriousness in Nicholas Briggs’ script – which is exactly what you’d expect of a Panto Who. Tennant’s reaction to being told that the Doctor has escaped – ‘Oh, shit!’ – is just one in a long line of gags undermining the Time Lords and their terminal worthiness. If you told Robert Holmes to just go completely hog-wild and took the brakes off him in The Deadly Assassin, you’d have Exile. Time Lords who just want to sit around all day in robes and headdresses, signing the occasional document are the order of the day.
Out of all of which comes a ladette Doctor, replete with vomit and hangover gags as she tries to blend into the local culture of turn-of-the-Millennium Britain. But – at the risk of taking a panto Who way too seriously – there is some characterisation underneath it all. She’s a Doctor who’s come about by suicide (in a line that will delight all the Missy-hating, ‘the Doctor should never be female’ fans, in the world of Exile, Time Lords only change sex when they commit suicide), and part of the reason she drinks so much is not to blend in, but to forget all the potential she has, to make herself right with the Doctor she’s become.
She’s a Doctor essentially in a crisis of self-identity – knowing that the reason she came to Earth was to hide, and so if she does anything ‘Doctory’ she’ll give herself away, but increasingly throughout the course of the story simply desperate to do something Doctory – tackling a bloke in the pub because he looks a bit ‘Mastery,’ reacting to the ultra-lame plan of the Time Lords pretending to be the ‘Rubber-Mask People’ (we mentioned this was Doctor Who as pantomime, right?) and, most tellingly of all, believing the psychological projection of the ‘other Doctor,’ the one she used to be, when he tells her about the evil plot of the Quarks to blow up the Sainsbury’s car park and destroy Princess Anne on the grounds that she ‘might one day be Prime Minister, or President of the Earth or something’ – she absolutely craves the Doctor she used to be, and resents what she’s been forced to become, claiming with good reason that the Time Lords want to punish her for being herself, and that herself isn’t a bad thing to be.
Ultimately, the call of the Doctor is too strong for her to ignore, or drown under lager and vodka any longer, and in trying to get back to her Tardis and fly away, she gives the Time Lords the heads-up they need to capture her. And even when put under ‘house arrest’ in the Tardis for rubbing the Time Lords’ noses in her ability to evade their justice, she feels that itch, that need to be free, to be the wanderer, the righter of wrongs, the Doctor. When she believes that activating the Tardis will wipe her out of history forever, she still flicks the switches, rationalising to herself that it might be better to be the Doctor one last time than live out her life forever wandering the Tardis corridors. The Exile Doctor is the Doctor trying always to self-discipline, when she doesn’t believe she’s done anything to deserve it. She’s the Doctor grown wilful and stubborn, without the intercession of the Time Lords to force her into her exile on Earth. In a sense, Exile shows us something telling about the human (and Time Lord) condition – it’s much easier to endure a punishment if you feel it’s been imposed on you than it is to govern yourself. It’s a fundamental truth, and it’s odd to find it in a pantomime version of a science-fiction show, but the reason we have laws and punishments is because the act of self-governance is not inherent in us, and likewise, a child getting away with a misdemeanour will find it more difficult and more meaningless to pay a voluntary penance for that misdemeanour than they would find it to sit on the naughty step under the cruel tyranny of a parent for a while.
The Exile Doctor is a Doctor who evades Time Lord justice, only to find the hoops she has to jump through to stay off their radar are worse than their judgment would have been. It’s a journey that ends with her making a rash decision, believing herself to be safe, and only thinking it through a half-second too late.
Briggs and Weir together create a version of the Doctor who’s almost unrecognisable in the pack, but who still manages, beneath an awful lot of vomit and headache jokes, to teach us something about the Doctors we’ve actually had, and the nature of our species. It’s perhaps fitting that she’s probably closest in her outlook to the Tenth Doctor, who, freeing himself completely of the baggage of the Time War, became the Time Lord Victorious. Weir never takes the Exile Doctor into quite such dark waters – she’s captured before any such crisis of personality can engulf her. But in having the cleverness to evade punishment, she finds her own cage in the life she’s forced to live on Earth, and retains the wilful streak right to the end. The Exile Doctor is unconquerable, determined not to submit to Time Lord justice – but in the end, her refusal to submit to their punishment is her undoing, both in terms of what she’s forced to become, and the lack of thought she puts into her final escape.