Doctor Who Unbound: DeadlineMartin Bannister, in 1961, was voted one of the Times‘ ten most promising young writers for his innovative stage plays. But he tried to venture into television, and was recruited for a new BBC science fiction program called Doctor Who. Despite his extraordinary efforts to define the show’s characters, themes and parameters, Martin watched as Doctor Who made it as far as one failed pilot episode before being abandoned by the BBC. Now, 40 years later, Martin is confined to a nursing home, subjected to unsettling visits by his adult son, who’s still bitter that Martin divorced his mother when he was only six. Martin isn’t sure what is the truth and what isn’t from what his son tells him, and this isn’t the only place he’s having problems with reality – he imagines a burgeoning romance with a nurse, he imagines that he’s being tapped to write the celebratory 40th anniversary comeback of Doctor Who (but why celebrate a show that was never made?), and he imagines that he is the Doctor, that most mysterious traveler in time and space. Will Martin Bannister trade his unpromising reality for an unrealized fantasy?

Order this CDwritten by Rob Shearman
directed by Nicholas Briggs
music by Nicholas Briggs

Cast: Sir Derek Jacobi (Martin), Genevieve Swallow (Susan), Peter Forbes (Philip), Jacqueline King (Barbara), Ian Brooker (Sydney), Adam Manning (Tom)

Timeline: 40 years after Doctor Who was rejected by the BBC

LogBook entry and TheatEar review by Earl Green

Review: An extraordinarily affecting piece of drama, Deadline stretches the concept of metafiction to breaking point, and then keeps on pushing. Hard. At several points, the listener really has to make his own judgement – based on what’s happened so far – about which of these scenarios is reality for Martin. And it’s not made easy – at many turns, Martin is a tragic and yet not entirely sympathetic character. He is, by turns, a crotchety, lovable old wanderer in space-time, and an utter bastard to everyone around him. But who’s really around him? Or is it Who that’s really around him?

It’d be nigh-impossible to pull all this off without an actor capable of playing all those shades to a sharp focus, and yet still capable of enough ambiguity to keep the listener on his toes. Sir Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius, The Brother Cadfael Mysteries, and too many other prestigious BBC and stage dramas to count) is an inspired choice, and even a year later I’m floored that Big Finish was able to woo him into taking part in an audio drama based on a defunct science fiction series. But the densely layered script probably had something to do with that – it’s not a part of Doctor Who as much as it is about Doctor Who. Rob Shearman needles fandom itself (actually a rather sharp jab, deflected only by portraying a character as an eager fan of the detective series Juliet Bravo, whose most-hated scripts were all written by Martin), the Doctor Who format (Martin complains about Susan’s character development in a way that echoes why actress Carole Ann Ford left the part to begin with), and even the guy looking back at him in the mirror (Martin goes on about his works centering on the theme of “the horrors of isolation” – actually a charge that has been leveled at Shearman’s scripts for prior Doctor Who audios). Deadline works on multiple levels, and it may take more than one listen to soak it all up.

I almost wish Shearman had left that last bit out, though. Because Deadline too is about the horrors of isolation, and continually diverting the spotlight from the story to its theme robs Deadline of some subtlety – but not enough to ruin it. Whereas The Holy Terror and The Chimes Of Midnight tackled that isolation as the isolation of a prisoner held by some sort of hostile force, or a faceless force of nature, Deadline paints Martin Bannister as a victim of isolation enforced on him by a family that has – perhaps not unjustifiably – discarded him. It’s easier to root for Martin when one of his visitors is revealed to be someone of extremely questionable character, but Shearman also doesn’t hestitate to point out that this is a man who discarded his family first, somewhat mitigating the tragedy that at least some of them are now returning the favor.

One thing that does remain deliciously, darkly ambiguous is the nature of Martin’s fantasies about being Doctor Who. It’s easy to view it as fantasy trying to lure him away from reality for the majority of the story, but at the very end I began to view his recurring vision of Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, as nothing less than Death, beckoning Martin from the other side. It’s not really something that’s pointed out, but my interpretation of the story’s seemingly open ending was that it wasn’t open-ended at all – it’s very final indeed, and the main character of the story has left us. In this way, Deadline‘s the most unsettling Doctor Who Unbound, perhaps second only to Full Fathom Five – but, if so, a very, very close second.

A very interesting story indeed – and something that would work just as well whether billed as a Doctor Who story or not. And though some production delays for Exile led to Deadline losing its place as the last Unbound story of that particular cycle, I strongly, strongly recommend listening to Deadline last. It’s as it should be.